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  • katherine halligan


What is worse than being stuck at home for months during a global pandemic with no end in sight?

Being grounded while stuck at home for months during a global pandemic with no end in sight.

(Well, there in fact are many things which are far, far worse, but I won’t go into that right now, because I’m try to stay firmly over here on the lighter side after hauling myself up from the deep, dark depths of despair in which I’ve been mired of late).

My older daughter has just emerged from her first COVID-induced grounding. My younger one has just emerged from her fourth. I don’t know which harsh, overbearing, unsympathetic adult swooped in and imposed this torture on us all (for it certainly punishes the parents as much as or more than the child)…

Oh, wait. It was me.

While the first two months of lockdown went fairly well (we were prepared! We were creative! We spent Quality Time Together!), the third one took a sharp downhill turn towards abject misery. Zoom had lost its lustre, to say the least. The novelty factor of interacting with the screen in a new way wore off fairly quickly, and as my daughters’ previously busy, happy, social world shrunk and flattened to a small, two-dimensional shadow of its former self, they became anxious and angry, while we grew exhausted and impatient.

Wrestling matches became an hourly occurrence (and the participants were not always minor children). Threats and bribes became a constant, but lost their power almost as quickly: what’s the point of removing a privilege when there are none left to enjoy anyway, for anyone? As parents we quickly realised we had nowhere to go with these increasingly frequent revocations of privilege, just as we had nowhere to go at all in the world, anyway.

Nonetheless, our younger child left us with no alternative when she pranked her sister by offering her a glass of water…. which she had just scooped up out of the toilet. Thankfully it had been flushed and had also been cleaned just that morning (the latter is rather rare in our house, although luckily the former happens with reassuring regularity)… but still! My stomach still churns as I write: because our older child drank that toilet water.

We were completely horrified by the crime of our seven-year-old deviant (and also just a tiny bit impressed with her evil genius), and instantly imposed on her an unprecedented two weeks of no screen time and extra chores. The former would not have been so bad, but it also meant no virtual play dates on that same screen, and that truly crushed her in a way that makes me cringe with guilt even now. We always offer redemption, and she eventually earned her way out of prison on early release for good behaviour, but still, my initial judgement was perhaps overly harsh. Self-doubt and worry stalk us all now more than ever.

So I have a particular sympathy with Gavin Newsom: it’s really very difficult to parent children who are behaving badly. We Californians have been naughty, and so we’ve been sent to our rooms again, locked up, grounded once more. How do you deal with unruly children, when everyone is miserable and the stakes are so high? How do you avoid policing them too heavily, while also keeping them safe from one another? How do you comfort and support and uplift them, while also reprimanding them effectively when they become so self-absorbed they forget to behave kindly to one other?

We, like the small people we once were and whom many of us now parent, need social interaction to be happy and human. Without it, we become feral and angry and creative in our mischief. We turn on our own, brother against brother, bored and resentful little sister against toilet-water-drinking big sister.

We do sometimes need to be grounded. To reflect, to ponder what we’ve done wrong and how we might have done better. To learn from our mistakes. In a time when the world is in freefall, we need to feel grounded too, to know that the ground is — quite literally — right there beneath our feet, offering structure and solidity and a much-needed lower boundary.

As we peered over the precipitously, vertiginously high edges of the Grand Canyon a few weeks ago, the ground below was very, very far away. Sometimes it was so far down we couldn’t even see it. I had been thrilled by that mile-long drop when I’d seen it as a child and in my twenties; in my mid-forties, with boisterous small children whose joy at being a little bit freer meant they occasionally came far too close to fences that were far too small and meagre and even non-existent, it was sickening and terrifying.

It was also completely exhilarating and life-affirming and necessary.

As our world continues to fall apart, with a few well-meaning grownups trying to patch it together with a bit of tape and hope (and far more, less-well-meaning superannuated children trying to break it all apart), the consequences of taking even one false step becomes even scarier and more dangerous. It’s a very long way down to the bottom, and we just keep falling. We all need to know the ground is down there, somewhere, even when it feels very far away. We all need to stand on firmer ground, on solid ground, on common ground.

Last week when (far more briefly, because I’d learned my own lesson) I grounded our older daughter for some rare violence against her sister (she’d finally snapped, and who could blame her?), she went calmly to her room and said she was glad to be grounded and she was going to use her time productively.

Would that we all responded so well to our grounding. Would that we all calmly took our lumps, and found the positive. Would that we all learned and grew from this experience.

Because being grounded is certainly also a positive thing: we are bound to our home and to one another. Tethered together, we keep one another grounded: down-to-earth, secure, happy.

So I try to enjoy this process of being grounded-in-more-ways-than-one. I try to look up and out and beyond this time, backward into memory and ahead into the future. I try to keep dreaming, even as I feel myself tied so firmly down. I remember Theodore Roosevelt’s words: “Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground.”

I have nowhere else to be, so this is where I am. On this ground, grounded.

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